Trey Gunn's Untune The Sky (out on Inside Out Music America) features material from Gunn's storied solo past but, the Warr guitarist notes, the album's not exactly a rehash of times gone by; rather, it's a glimpse at the past through eyes that live very much in the present. And, along with King Crimson's Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With EP and its full-length counterpart (The Power To Believe, both on Sanctuary/DGM), plus the band's DVD Eyes Wide Open, Untune The Sky (which features a bonus DVD that captures Gunn and his band on the road) finds the now former Krimsonite in top form and poised for what will surely be an exciting musical future.
SoT interview by Jedd Beaudoin
Sea of Tranquility: Tell me a little bit about the genesis of Untune The Sky.
Trey Gunn: Basically, it was initiated by my Japanese contacts who were moving my whole solo catalogue to another label in Japan and they had the idea of doing a retrospective CD. I can't say that I'm a huge fan of the concept. Either you like the band or the guy's work and you have the stuff or you don't. But, as we started talking about that and getting my ideas for doing something like that, it started to becoming a good idea. But it was kind of contingent on me selling them on the idea of being able to bundle a DVD with it because I had a bunch of stuff that I wanted to include in the DVD. It wasn't really strong enough to put out just as a DVD. They liked that idea and then I started talking to Inside Out about that and they went for it as well.
SoT: How did you go about choosing the material that wound up on the CD?
TG: That was pretty interesting because ... if you look at my four, five or six CDs, depending on how you look at it, a couple of them were done with the live band. It seemed, from the live band's perspective, that there are clearly tracks that are stronger than others. Some pieces came together better and were stronger ideas. I put together what I thought were the strongest tracks and it didn't make for a very good record. I realized that I was jut picking what the consensus were about the strongest tracks, so I threw out that idea. We'd just put out a live record of the Trey Gunn Band and had all the strongest tracks from the live band, so I didn't want to do that again, although they were live versions. So, I just went through and found what were, in a sense, the most meaningful tracks, what I wanted to hear, from my catalogue. When I did that it was just a much better record. So, I tweaked that and put on some unreleased stuff and some alternate mixes. I extended some of the mixes and put them together and put together the version for Inside Out Music. The Japanese version has been delayed, so I had some time, after putting out the [American] version, to keep working on it. And I think I've actually improved it for the Japanese version. I found another unreleased track and switched the running order a little bit. So it was actually kind of nice to put out the record but then be able to continue working on it. That's the audio side. The DVD was kind of a whole [different] project.
SoT: So you didn't really make a retrospective, you made a new record.
TG:It's definitely a new record. For me, the running order is so important for a record. And for me, putting together the running order for almost every record that I've done, I throw out material that's really good material but doesn't make the whole thing listenable. I'm not a fan of long records, even though this is the longest record I've ever made. I think it's really stupid to make a long record. It's just kind of greedy, it's like you feel you have to possess as much music as possible for a good listening experience. Most records that are over 60 minutes, you really can't sit down and listen to the whole thing. I'm interested in making records (which the whole idea of making records is going out the window anyway) where you have a full listening experience, where the whole thing plays like a film. Often, good material gets tossed out just because it doesn't work in the context of the whole piece. That's what was great about this [project]: How do you fit all
this ... not totally disparate material ... I wrote all of it and I'm on all of it, but it's all a different bunch of vibes .... So, putting it together in that way did make a new record, recontextualized it. There's about 10 to 12 minutes of unreleased stuff. The Japanese version has about 15 or 20 minutes, so it is a new thing.
SoT: You said something kind of interesting about the idea of making records going out the window. Can you tall a little bit about that?
TG:Well, once the medium that we listen to music on is not a thing anymore, once it's just information, then there's no time constraints one way or the other. Then you're free to make the piece what the piece wants to be. If it's a two minute piece, then it's a two minute piece and you download it or transmit it via Blue Tooth or wireless, however you get it. If it's a 70 minute piece, then it's a 70 minute piece. You're not going to a store and buying a thing. Undoubtedly that's what it's going to be. Manufacturers and product makers want a thing because they can sell you a thing. They can control what a thing is, they can sell you the thing and you can give them money for a thing but that's not the way it's going to be. It's going to be all transmittable. I think that that'll free you up to .... Just free up the form so that it's not a CD. It's ridiculous for someone to put out a CD of 72 minutes of music when, really, the stage that they're at and the stage the piece is at is really 20 minutes. It's like taking a short film and making it into a two hour thing when that's not what it should be. It'll be great once you don't have to do that.
SoT: You seem willing to embrace that idea ....
TG:Anyone who isn't is an idiot.
TG:There are so many musicians I know who have their head stuck in the ground so deep that they have no awareness of [this]. It doesn't matter whether I embrace it or no musician embraces it, it is the future. It's just a matter of time before you either burn up on the side or you adapt or new guys come in and fill the shoes. That's where it's going and it doesn't care what you and I think.
SoT: Did you set out to make a DVD or was it just a matter of you having the material?
TG:I didn't set out to make a DVD until the very end. There's three sections to the DVD. There's the live band, there's interviews and stuff that came out of road journals and then there's the video montages section. The video montage section was done completely after this project had begun. It was something I wanted to do and when it became clear that it could be put into the DVD, I added it in and built those pieces. The live stuff ... a lot of it was shot a couple of years ago because we just happened to be in New York on a day off and Bob [Muller]'s studio was there, free. We thought, "Let's hire the cameras and let's do a show for a private audience." So we did a Internet giveaway for 20 people because that's all the room could hold. They came in and we filmed it and played. We used some of the footage from there. Some of that material also went on the Live Encounter CD. Then we started this project called Road Journals with the guy who does all my artwork for me. It was essentially a multimedia tour brochure that we made from a tour but we trickled it online as we went. You bought a ticket to the road journals and you go to go on everyday or every other day and get pictures and audio diaries from the tour. After it was done we put it out on a double CD-Rom. I took all that material and put it together into the DVD.
SoT: You've been pretty open in the past, keeping an online diary and so on. Do you feel comfortable with that?
TG:I started doing it about eight years ago. A friend of mine asked me to write some diaries and put them up on a web site he was working on. I said, "No, I don't want to do that. It's too personal." It just seemed like that ... with the way that relationships go between musicians and with business and the audience ... it just all seemed too exposing, not the thing to do. But he kept bugging me, so I said, "Look, let me give it a try. We're going to Japan with Krimson and if I don't like what I wrote, I won't send it to you." I just figured out a way to do it that worked and I kept it going for about seven years. My angle on it was: "This is my diary. This is what happened to me. This is how I see it. This is my experience. It may be completely different from the audience's and from the other musicians in the band. And that's okay." [Laughs.]
TG: I'm not trying to say that there's anything objective about it. It's my experience and I expose my experience pretty blatantly. That seemed to work fine. Some audiences were surprised that my experience was different than theirs. But I did figure out a way to be able to talk about the people I'm working with without exposing them in a negative way, which is really hard to do whenever you're working with anybody. And [it's important to] not expose too much about their lives. Their lives are none of anybody else's business unless [that person] wants it to be.
SoT: Tell me a little bit about the video montages from the DVD.
TG: Those come out of a whole new kind of work that I began about a year ago that I'm following up with right now. I have a performance project called Quodia that is essentially .... I think of it as multidimensional storytelling. There's text, spoken word, some kind of storyline, live music and live video backdrop that has images and also some of the text on it. [We've been] experimenting with that and discovering ... essentially making a new kind of form, where it's not like putting images to music via a music video and it's not like scoring a film ... there's actually things that work together and making something new. I've been working on that about a year and for these video montages, I wanted to do more work with the visuals, so I found tracks that weren't ever recorded live and weren't part of the rest of the DVD and made, essentially, video compositions on top of them. That would be the kind of thing where you take the video and put the music on top of it so it's not exactly a totally conceived as one whole in the beginning but I thought it worked quite well and it's an interesting section. As I'm finding and as all filmmakers tell me, you, especially with film, you never finish. You just have to stop at some point because you can't go on anymore because it needs to go on. There's a lot of things I would be able to make it better with. [Laughs.] Actually, I'm going to be putting those montages up out here in Seattle at the Experience Music Project, a giant music museum where they have a 100 foot LCD music video wall where they'll be in rotation.
SoT: Do you think that multimedia is a form where the full potential has not yet been met?
TG: It definitely hasn't. What really interests me is the .... In a sense it started in the '60s. Audio's been brought down to the consumer level in the last 10 years and now film and video have been as well. What interests me the most is the language of the multimedia, where you're not mixing the languages. The sentence they use, the grammar they're using is a little bit of story, a little bit of music and a little bit of imagery. The combination of those makes your language, not putting those two together. A musical phrase is your vocabulary and the note the choices and the chords you use is your musical vocabulary and your visual vocabulary may be the black and white and you take pictures of this and that but when you combine them together, they can be two things combined or they can be two things conceived as one. What we found ... is that when you put imagery and story and visuals together, each of the elements, in order to make a cohesive, digestible language, has to be missing something. The music can't be completely full. The visual can't be completely full for them to hook together in a way that makes one thing, not layers of things.
SoT: You play an experimental instrument and have been part of bands that play material that exists outside of standard musical parameters. My question, I guess, is this: When you're beyond those parameters, how do you judge ....
TG: When something's good?
TG:I've been playing music for a long time and I studied music for a long time and it's pretty much ... if you're willing to ask yourself if it's good or not ... who cares what anyone else thinks but do you want to listen to it? It makes life so easy if you can just allow yourself to answer the question. It doesn't interest me .... My instrument is very unusual. Not too many people play it. It's a very new instrument and it's very novel and it's a freaky thing and none of those aspects of it
interest me so I don't ... I generally have a tendency not to get lost in the tool of it, the novelty of it. I just want to make really interesting music that's good. That kind of helps. [Laughs.] If you're
really obsessed with your tools that's what you're doing ... you're playing with your tools and it doesn't really go beyond your tools. I'm really interested in the music and now I'm really interested in how the music interlocks with the visuals. And performance.
SoT: Can you tell me a little bit about your decision to leave King Crimson?
TG: There's not a whole lot to say. There's not much to dwell on. I've done what I needed to do there. It's been a fantastic gift to be part of that band and work with those guys and I'm sure that I'll work with those guys again but I need to move on to something else. As long as I'm under that wing [I can't] move on. My way of working is ... when I first started playing Chapman Stick, when I realized that that was my instrument and that's what I'd be playing, after having been a musician for 20 years up to that point, I stopped playing every other instrument. I thought, "If I'm going to play an instrument, this is going to be it." I put my bass away, I put my guitar away and I went on 100 auditions with that instrument and through that I learned how to play it. If I'd had a session or an audition and I'd taken my bass with me, which I could play much better, I would have never learned to play [Chapman Stick]. It's kind of like that with Krimson. I've done it, I can do it very well. Very, very well. The band's going through a transition, it's time for me to move on. Why beat about the bush. Let's get on with it.
SoT: You had a great year with them, with the EP, the CD and now the [two DVD set].
TG: I think it's our best stuff, so why not get on with it. I think that the Thrak period was really unusual and really strong and then, with the four piece, we've just been ramping up constantly, since we started. The ConstruKction of Light is an okay record, it's not a great record. There's a couple of really great things, a couple of not great things. But it was ... we did it and it was good and the band was still good live and we kept ramping up and ramping up and wrote even stronger material, really strong material and put out what is in a sense probably the strongest record since Discipline, I think. The live band blew the record away. It was phenomenally good and I'm so glad that we got it captured on DVD the way we did with two different styles of capturing it. I don't know really what else we would do. We were at the top and it's really great to have it captured and out there.
Visit http://www.treygunn.com for more information on Trey and his current and future projects.